Four Tips for Helping Students Unpack an Argument

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Perhaps it’s the frenzied primary campaign season that’s to blame. But for some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of our public discourse. More specifically, I’ve noticed that our political candidates are increasingly unwilling—or unable—to answer questions with logical, detailed answers. When asked to explain why they have taken a certain position on an issue, many tend to present shallow arguments with skimpy evidence. They rely instead on platitudes and emotional rhetoric.

The challenge for teachers, then, is to help students negotiate a world where clear language and well-structured arguments seem to be diminishing in importance.

The good news is that we can provide students with the knowledge and tools they’ll need to navigate the mish-mash of arguments and opinions thrown at them each day. For example, SAS Curriculum Pathways offers four lessons in a series called Quick Tutorials: Clear Thinking. Students learn to reason carefully, recognize faulty logic, and construct and assess written and spoken arguments.

Each tutorial is built on a crucial tip for helping students analyze the arguments they’re hearing every day—from televised political speeches and newspaper opinion pieces to conversations with their parents and peers.

Tip #1: Beware of distractions.

Sometimes speakers—through carelessness, laziness, or even dishonesty— intentionally disguise a weak argument by distracting their audience with calculated errors in logic. Clear Thinking: Distracting the Reader surfaces and explains these errors, including false dilemmas and slippery slope arguments. It also shows students how to spot arguments from ignorance (the illogical assumption that if something hasn’t been proven true, then it’s false) and complex questions (the connecting of unrelated ideas with the assumption that both are true).


Tip #2:  Make sure the evidence leads to a logical conclusion.

Clear Thinking: Missing the Point shows how a speaker sometimes provides evidence that fails to prove that the conclusion is true or relevant to the argument. When that happens, the argument is said to miss the point.

Another way a speaker might form a faulty conclusion is by begging the question.  In this case, she bases the argument on premises she mistakenly assumes the listener will agree with.


Tip #3: Watch for someone unfairly changing the subject when challenging an argument.

Clear Thinking: Changing the Subject shows how a “shifty” listener might challenge an argument by shifting the focus. For example, someone presenting an argument might be unfairly attacked by the listener, who might change the subject by attacking the character or motivation of the arguer rather than confronting the merits of the argument itself. These shifty characters might also change the subject by side-stepping the evidence and offering unrelated counter-arguments.

Students learn to spot a case of faulty logic called style over substance. When someone ignores an argument’s conclusions and attempts to counter with persuasive words and beguiling body language, then the response to the argument sadly relies on style, not substance.


Tip #4: Reject arguments that rely on emotions rather than reasons and evidence.

Clear Thinking: Looking for Evidence makes the case that strong arguments are supported with reasons and facts. Students learn to look for several types of emotional appeals. The appeal to pity, for example, occurs when a speaker lists reasons that the listener should pity him or his condition. Similarly, arguers sometimes apply the appeal to popularity, claiming that a proposal is true simply because many people believe it is true.

Students also learn about the appeal to force and the appeal to consequences. In both cases, the arguer threatens the listener by warning that failing to accept the argument will possibly lead to an unfortunate consequence. And if neither of these appeals does the trick, some people use loaded words (e.g., all reasonable people will agree…) to advance their argument.

Of course, none of these emotional appeals has anything to do with the merits of the argument.

Want to learn more about how to help students unpack an argument, check out these resources:

Political Palaver and the Passive Voice
Active Listening

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Terry Hardison

Terry Hardison oversees the development of English language arts resources for Curriculum Pathways. Prior to joining SAS, Terry worked for 21 years as a teacher and as a district-level English language arts supervisor.

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